“You never eyeball a horn player. You just don’t. They’re stuntmen. You don’t eyeball stuntmen when they’re about to dice with death.”
– Sir Simon Rattle, Chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker
WELCOME TO FRENCH HORN WEEK!
Welcome to my week dedicated to the brass instrument known as the French horn.
Having pretty much only ever played with mellophones in marching bands and not with actual French horns, I’ve learned quite a lot the last few weeks while talking to the talented horn players of my Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO). I hope you enjoy reading about this wonderful instrument and meeting the CSO horn players as much as I have.
Today you’ll be treated to a double dose of musical goodness as I introduce the French horn itself followed later this morning by the first of four horn players, Erin Lano. Tomorrow morning, you’ll get to meet Adam Koch. On Wednesday, Julia Rose and on Thursday, Principal horn player, Gene Standley. By Friday, when you’ve had a chance to meet everyone and soak in a bit of how the French horn fits into the world of music, I hope you’ll enjoy some more great samples of music as well as our thoughts on the future of the CSO.
Symphony seasons are just starting up and these musicians are people who do nothing but create beauty in the midst of chaos. If your life is as hectic and crazy as mine, you’ll want to support them because maybe, just maybe, you could use some of that beauty, too. If all goes well, maybe you’ll even be inspired by the end of this week to go hear your local symphony play. I promise you, it’ll be worth the trip!
But until you get there, I hope you’ll feel free in the meantime to join in the discussion every day, leaving your thoughts on the French horn and music as well as saying hello to each of these amazingly talented musicians.
So with that in mind, I bid you welcome!
“God made some people Horn players; others are not so fortunate.”
– Anton Horner, first horn professor at Curtis Institute of Music
THEY’VE COME A LONG WAY
French horns originally got their start as nothing more than carved out animal horns or even conch shells used primarily to send signals over long distances. Over the centuries, they eventually became a bit more formal in a way – made of metal with a single loop used most often in Renaissance Europe by men on horseback sounding the hunt. There were no valves, so the horn player had to use his breath and his embouchure in order to play different notes.
Playing the French horn is still a challenge today. According to Associate Conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Peter Stafford Wilson,
The French horns are…the bridge between the woodwind and brass sections. They appear in both brass and woodwind chamber music settings, as their sound can have the warmth of woodwinds yet the power of the brass.
It probably is one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra to learn as technical success relies not only on pressing the right buttons, but a keen sense of pitch and a strong control of embouchure.
During the 17th century, modifications were made to the Hunting Horn, or Cor De Chasse, to turn it into the French horn similar to what we know today. The rest, as they say, is history.
I WOULDN’T TOUCH THAT WITH A 12-FOOT HORN!
OK, so that might not catch on as well as not touching something with a 10-foot pole, but horn players everywhere are working to change that.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned about the French horn.
- When uncoiled, a French horn is 12′ long. (See?)
- Screw bell – ever see one of those big, clunky French horn cases? Being able to unscrew the bell makes it much easier to carry. You can see the joint in the picture above of Julia’s horn. It also makes it compact enough to fit inside the cabin of an airplane because no musician wants to check their instrument with an airline.
- Southpaws take note! It is the only brass instrument that is played left-handed.
- French horn players however, switch to the right-handed Mellophone when playing in marching band as it plays the same range, but is more easily portable.
- The French horn has the smallest mouthpiece of all the brass instruments.
- Handstopping – horn players can change the tone and essentially add more notes just by using the right hand which rests inside the bell while playing.
- Often thought of as one of the hardest instruments to play.
- Often seen in Christmas decorations. (Think we can change it from Three French Hens to Three French Horns?)
- Makes for a tasty pastry!
- French horns have their own cocktail! French Horn Cocktail Ingredients: 2.5 cl Vodka, 2 cl Chambord (Raspberry liqueur) and 1.25 cl Lemon Juice. Chill the cocktail glass while making the cocktail, and once chilled rim the glass with salt. Shake the ingredients together in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into the chilled rimmed cocktail glass. Cheers!
The French horn itself has definitely evolved over time with its popularity’s really coming into being during the romantic period.
Maestro Wilson has this to stay about that evolution:
You find the best writing for horn from the romantic era to the present time. The instrument in the classical (and baroque?) periods was just so difficult and unwieldy and even limited in the pitches it could deliver that composers like Mozart and Haydn used it primarily to reinforce the harmony and supply fanfare effects on occasion. Beethoven’s music is the earliest I can recall that uses it with any particular soloistic flair.
Later on today, you’re going to meet Erin Lano, the first of four CSO horn players. She, along with Adam Koch, studied at Rice University, home to Professor Bill VerMeulen, Principal horn player with the Houston Symphony and former Principal Horn player with the CSO. He had this to say about them.
I couldn’t be more proud of Erin and Adam. They are both terrific hornists and people. I have been so fortunate to both play in the Columbus Symphony and now help staff its horn section with wonderful students. I wish everyone the best.
To me the French horn is a beautiful instrument. I love the middle voices and, with apologies to trumpet players everywhere, the best part of Fanfare for Common Man by Copland is when the French horns come in. Mozart, Richard Strauss and Schumann have some beautiful pieces for the horn. But, because I cannot deny my love of science fiction, I have to say that I absolutely love the theme music to all of the Star Trek movies which strongly features the French horn. The theme to the Star Trek remakes (with J.J. Abrams at the helm) are especially nice.
Even if you’re not into SciFi movies, you can’t deny the beauty of this haunting melody.
Now if I’m really lucky, I’ll get one of the CSO horn players to play the theme to Star Trek for me. I don’t even care from which movie or show. I know for a fact that at least two of them played with the Cincinnati Pops in a concert that featured Star Trek theme music, so I know they know it. I’m optimistic! (scheming – scheming – scheming)
So glad you made it to French Horn Week! Come back starting at 10am today to meet Erin Lano!
- Star Trek and French Horns (giocosity.com)